Kimberley Abbott: Why problem solving is at the core of innovation


30th January 2020


9 min


Dale Jones

On the evening of Thursday 16th November 2017‚ we hosted our first ever Innovate Now event.

With the rise of Augmented Reality and other immersive technologies‚ we wanted to get people talking about the practical benefits for business.

Hence‚ we’re bringing together a panel of experts to share their views – and giving our guests the chance to try this incredible tech for themselves.

The event is the second in our Innovate Now series‚ designed to showcase the benefits of embracing rising technologies and innovative working methods.

The first time round‚ we focused on innovative working methods‚ and were honoured to be joined by Paul Sutherland of +ADD Strategy and Kimberley Thales of Thales UK‚ who shared some fascinating insights.

Now that the dust has settled‚ we thought we’d catch up with Ted talker Kimberley again to reflect on theme of the evening and bring some of those insights to our much-appreciated readership. DJ: Tell us a bit about your background‚ your current work and the role innovation has played in your career.

KA: I currently work as Engineering Innovation Lead in Thales UK’s Research Technology and Innovation team at Thales UK‚ but innovation has pretty much been the central theme in all I’ve done in my career. 

I have worked at Thales for over four years in engineering and customer innovation‚ starting my career in Thales Australia before jumping the pond to join Thales in the UK. This year‚ I was named in the Telegraph’s 2017 Top 50 Women in Engineering.

In addition to working at Thales‚ I was the co-founder and CEO of Roka‚ an award-winning social enterprise developed to break the cycle of poverty in rural India through the education and economic empowerment of women.

Subsequently‚ I was named as one of the Financial Review’s Top 100 Women of Influence‚ and have also been a member of the official Australian Government Delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

People often think these experiences are completely different‚ but to me they all revolve around ‘problem solving’ – which is essentially what innovation is at its core. 

DJ: What does innovation mean to you and how is the concept evolving?

KA: I think innovation traditionally meant ‘generating ideas’. Then it became about ‘making ideas happen’. Now I think the movement needs to head towards ‘creating impact and value’.

I believe the focus shouldn’t be on novel solutions‚ or even on concepts that are rapidly growing in popularity‚ but rather on creating change that has a positive impact on society. These solutions should also be sustainable in their design and business models.

DJ: At hedgehog lab‚ we’re sometimes met with the perception that innovation is only for large corporations with plenty of money to spare for dabbling in new ideas. Is this so‚ and if not‚ how can smaller businesses benefit from innovative approaches?

KA: I think the idea that innovation requires money‚ and that the risk of failure is expensive‚ is completely wrong. It may even be the reason why people think only big corporations can afford the investment and the risk.

I think smaller businesses actually have potential to become more innovative in their thinking and problem solving. Often‚ they aren’t bound by the processes and constraints that large businesses have to deal with. They see the world differently‚ have the freedom to think differently and can often move much faster than a large corporation can.

However‚ large corporations do sometimes have an advantage when it comes to developing and taking a product to market since they have large teams‚ loads of talent and‚ of course‚ money. But I think in this age money is not as critical a factor as many think… You can build a start-up for next to nothing and test an idea in days. You can also teach yourself the skills – and funding to scale and develop is more readily available than ever. So really there is no better time to be a small innovator!

In saying that‚ I would encourage smaller businesses not to be afraid to work with or partner with large corporations. The big guys can benefit from your different perspectives and agility‚ and you can benefit from their resources‚ contacts and experience. 

[object Object]

Thales drone concept developed during an innovation sprint with hedgehog lab

DJ: Tell us about the project you undertook with hedgehog lab. Thales is a huge company‚ with great expertise in its field…. What could we bring to the table? Take us through the process and the results. What was the biggest benefit?

KA: One of the most important aspects of business is recognising that‚ more often than not‚ you  can’t do everything all of the time! When we embarked on our project in the UAS space we knew that Thales’ knowledge of the sector‚ the platform required and the safety-critical elements of it was unrivalled. However‚ when it came to UI/UX‚ we felt we could benefit from some external input. We also wished to gain a fresh perspective on how future technologies could integrate with our idea. 

We had a very short timeframe in which to develop a concept demo‚ so it was important to bring in someone external who could do the work quickly but to a high standard. We reached out to hedgehog lab and joined the team in Newcastle to run through what the project was about and what we needed in terms of future thinking and UI/UX. hedgehog then undertook their own innovation sprint to identify potential emerging technologies and UI elements we would need to consider. They showed these to us in a brilliant presentation deck‚ which we were able to present to our own executives‚ demonstrating that the future of the product had been considered.

I think the biggest benefit we gained from working with hedgehog was the alternative‚ fresh thinking they provided. They presented us with things we absolutely would not have thought of due to our own constrained thinking. They were also exceptionally professional and easy to work with‚ and we really enjoyed the experience.

DJ: To what extent is innovation about business culture rather than process? How can businesses unlock employees’ creativity?

KA: I think innovation is almost entirely about culture; process is the enabler but culture is the driver. Time and time again we see that all the processes in the world won’t work if people aren’t engaged and empowered to use them. For me‚ the most important ways to unlock employees’ inventiveness are:

  • Give them time to be creative and make it clear that suggesting ideas is acceptable

  • Provide the necessary tools and support‚ including manuals‚ processes and Innovation Champions who can help with taking ideas from concept to testing/development

  • Celebrate failures: communication is central to innovation culture. Share ideas and feedback‚ even if it’s a ‘no’. Acknowledge people for being proactive‚ since this is essential to making them feel valued and encouraging their desire to continuing innovating.

[object Object]

Australian Government Delegate to the UN Comission on Status of Women

DJ: On a related point‚ is there a risk that what starts out innovative soon becomes tired as it gets bogged down by strategy and structures?

KA: There is always a risk that innovation can get buried in business processes and structures. But we must remember those structures exist for good reason – to reduce risk and align business direction into the future. I think it’s about letting innovations ‘breathe’ for a bit‚ away from the business processes‚ to really see if they have potential. Once an idea has been validated and agreement has been reached that it is worth taking to market‚ then it can be incorporated into the business structures to ensure quality‚ risk and strategy are adequately managed.

DJ: Given the advantages of new technologies and working methods‚ what stops people adopting them? What would you say to those who are reluctant to break from tradition?

KA: I think innovators are quick to blame reluctant people for slow adoption of technologies‚ but I honestly believe that if the technology is truly ‘good enough’ people will adopt it. If the technology is value-adding‚ reliable and safe‚ is easy and intuitive to use‚ and is integrated into a person’s current habits‚ I think it will be adopted… If it’s not being adopted‚ I would encourage innovators to first look at the tech before blaming the people!

DJ: What would you most want the audience to have taken away from your presentation at our first Innovate Now event?

KA: I hope they took away that innovation isn’t about just taking a popular change implementation process and following it; it’s about understanding that every innovation is different and every organisation has different priorities. It’s about making it work for you‚ using as many tools as you need.

DJ: Finally‚ what’s next for you on your journey? Any exciting projects you can tell us about?

KA: Working as Engineering Innovation Lead in our Innovation Hub means there are always lots of exciting projects coming our way! At the moment‚ we are doing a lot of work in rapid prototyping of databases‚ platforms and apps. We also are developing more of our concepts in AR/VR‚ as well as plenty of work with machine learning and AI.

We’d like to thank Kimberley for kindly taking the time out to supply us with the answers to our questions!